Abstinence from Meat as Lifelong Discipleship of Christ

by | Mar 20, 2024 | Justice, Lent, Spirituality

“What have you given up for Lent?” is a common question among the faithful this time of the year. As Catholics, besides abstaining from meat on Fridays, we are not obligated to fast from anything else. We are free to choose our fasts based on what will help us grow closer to God. Traditionally, meat is a common abstinence during the whole of Lent. However, given the horrific realities of the meat industry, I wonder whether abstinence from meat is something we should do for 40 days or for life.

The cruelties of the meat industry, especially its factory farming methods, are widely known. Today, when we can easily obtain all our nutritional needs from plant-based foods, billions of animals are confined, tortured, and slaughtered every year to create a food product that is unnecessary in Western society. Besides the immense harm inflicted on animals which is significant on its own, the meat industry causes grave harm to God’s creation: large scale carbon emissions, water pollution and overuse, and deforestation in the Amazon and other places. In his book Eating Animals, Jonathan Foer emphatically claims that “someone who regularly eats factory-farmed animal products cannot call himself an environmentalist without divorcing that word from its meaning.” It seems that the case against eating meat is overwhelmingly obvious. However, most Christians are intentionally oblivious or apathetic to the destruction rendered by the meat industry. 

Furthermore, people think that abstaining from meat is difficult, and will go to any lengths to avoid removing meat from our diets. Billions of dollars have been poured into the lab-grown meat industry in the hopes that we can continue to eat meat without feeling guilty about our responsibility for unnecessary slaughter of animals or widespread environmental destruction. Joe Fassler, a New York Times contributor, notes that lab-grown meat “was an excuse to shirk that hard, necessary work… a way to pretend that things will go on as they always have, that nothing really needs to change. It was magical climate thinking, a delicious delusion.”  

Reading through a Catholic lens, we can connect this shirked responsibility with the season of Lent when we are called to conversion in order to live our lives for God’s glory. In her wisdom, the Church suggests fasting as a spiritual practice to remind us that we can not only survive but thrive without the lesser things of this world. Once a year, we take stock of our lives, stop indulging in delicious delusions of pretending that things will go on as they always have been, and instead ask what God hopes for us in this life. If we spend too much time on social media in the delusion that it makes us happy, we can see Lent as a time to abstain from social media such that we can devote the time to fulfilling God’s hopes for us. 

Similarly, fasting from meat helps us break our dependency on meat and apathy towards animal suffering. After forty days of abstaining from meat, if done with a healthy diet, we will feel good about our spiritual lives, our moral values, and our physical health. We will realize that meat was all along a delicious delusion totally unnecessary to live a healthy life.

Furthermore, if we realize that meat consumption goes against our call for kindness towards God’s creation, we can see Lent as an opportunity to realign our lives with God’s hopes for us. If abstaining from meat brings our lives in closer alignment with God’s desires, I wonder whether abstinence from meat is something we should do for 40 days or for life? It goes without saying that we must shun destructive habits throughout our lives if we profess to be disciples of Christ. We ought to live with kindness every single day, during Lent and otherwise. Abstinence from morally neutral things such as social media can be a temporary ascetical practice for Lent. However, abstinence from morally repugnant things such as cruelty towards animals ought to be practiced throughout our lives.

As Christians, we are already against the principles on which the meat industry thrives. We do not want a world of gluttony, violence, and apathy. Nor do we want to continue living lives of gluttony, violence, and apathy. And obviously, we would not wish to be responsible for unnecessary slaughter of animals or widespread environmental destruction associated with consumption of meat. Therefore, we ought to turn away from the destructive behavior of meat consumption and turn towards God’s goodness and truth.

It seems hard to take responsibility for our actions and change our lifestyles because as humans we take comfort in what is easy and familiar. In his book Dominion, Matthew Scully writes that “when people say that they like their veal or burgers just too much to ever give them up, and yeah it’s sad about the factory farms but that’s just the way it is, reason hears in that the voice of gluttony. What makes a human being human is precisely the ability to understand that the suffering of an animal is more important than the taste of a treat.” And as disciples of Christ we ought to overcome our lesser desires of comfort and pleasure and become more like Him by living lives of compassion that may sometimes require self-sacrifice through the abstinence from meat.

Consequently, when someone says that they have given up meat for Lent as a penance, I wonder whether we could instead see a meat-free diet through the lens of goodness and kindness. Goodness and kindness toward animals and God’s creation. When seen as a practice of kindness, abstaining from meat is something we ought to do not only during Lent but throughout our lives.

Giving up meat is easy and hard. It is easy because God gives us the grace to live with kindness and compassion. Over the years, I have asked Jesus to help me in my desire to abstain from meat, and I have always felt consoled in prayer through a sense of accompaniment. It is also easy because there is a plethora of affordable, healthy, and delicious plant-based products on our grocery shelves. Paradoxically, it is also hard because change is difficult especially when those around us knowingly or unknowingly hinder our conversion. However, challenges to conversion are a wonderful way to deepen our reliance on God through prayer and fasting. 

In the end, our universal call as Christians to promote goodness and kindness in the world can guide us on this Lenten and lifelong journey to live in greater harmony with all of God’s creation.

Note: Image courtesy of Freepik


Daniel Mascarenhas, SJ

dmascarenhassj@thejesuitpost.org   /   All posts by Daniel